Massimiano Bucchi believes that raising awareness of the conditions of research is an important element of scientific communication.

A sociological perspective on scientific communication

Svenska 2017-09-12

To understand our society, we must consider the role of science and technology in our daily lives. So says Massimiano Bucchi, professor of sociology at Italy’s University of Trento. He studies scientific communication from a sociological perspective and emphasises the importance of diversity.

Massimiano Bucchi has always liked scientific communication. To begin with, this was solely as a recipient of information, but he later discovered that nobody had taken an interest in the subject from a sociological perspective.

“So I decided that I could begin to research this – not as a journalist or a communicator but as a sociologist: what does scientific communication say about the role of science in society, and what does it say about our society in a wider perspective?”

He contends that it is obvious that science plays an important role in our society and has an impact on our culture. One example is the awarding of the Nobel prizes. This type of event often represents a gateway into research and becomes an important cultural factor. Museums and science festivals work in a similar manner and play an important role in society, in the view of Massimiano Bucchi.

“Take the Nobel Museum as an example. It receives thousands of visitors every day, and this says something about the importance and significance of science.”

Massimiano Bucchi is currently writing a book about how the awarding of the Nobel prizes helps to shape the general public’s perception of science and scientists, so he is a frequent visitor to the Nobel Museum.

Increased interest and greater activity

When Massimiano Bucchi first began his research in this subject, the field was small and his sociologist colleagues considered his choice to be a strange one. It was only after a certain amount of travelling that he was able to meet like-minded people and could discuss his research.

Then, however, the 1990s arrived, which featured discussions of mad cow disease and genetic engineering. Interest in scientific communication – and particularly research into how scientific communication is conducted and how it should be formed – increased significantly.

Massimiano Bucchi is currently the editor of the scientific journal Public Understanding of Science, and he feels that this field of research has grown enormously during the past 20-25 years.

“In my role as editor, I see greatly increased activity in this subject, including on a global scale. New countries from Latin America and Asia have entered the field and the quality of the research is increasing. Previously, the publications were mostly concerned with describing how poor the scientific communication was, but now we are also seeing good qualitative research.”

Once every two years, researchers within this field meet at the Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) global conference. Massimiano Bucchi organised this gathering in Florence in 2012, where approximately 700 researchers and scientific communicators from all around the world participated.

“It is a great opportunity to meet and exchange experiences with people from different backgrounds. In the same way that we researchers can learn about how scientific communication is conducted in practice, I hope that the scientific communicators can also benefit from, and find an application for, the results of our studies.”

Scientific communication 2.0

It is not only the field of research that has changed during recent decades but also the scientific communication itself. Massimiano Bucchi points out that much of the communication now takes place directly between the scientists and the interested target audience. He cites the example of a blog that is run by a physicist who challenges string theory.

“It may be a question of a small target audience, but this communication is taking place without any intermediaries and often in real time. In addition, there is also dynamism and the opportunity for interaction – especially through social media. This has not been possible in traditional forms of media.”

Massimiano Bucchi refers to this new way of communicating as scientific communication 2.0. He draws a comparison with the previous flow of information, where scientific findings were converted into either educational material in textbooks or popular science in newspapers and on radio and TV – a process that involves the selection and simplification of the original information.

No simple solution

Massimiano Bucchi is careful to emphasise that the concept of ‘the general public’ does not constitute a target audience.

“It is important to understand and to welcome the role of diversity within scientific communication. This is something that we should be researching more – with regard to the choice of both communication channel and target audience.”

Some of the variables which should be taken into account are, in the view of Massimiano Bucchi, target audience, objective, content and subject.

“The message that is perhaps the most important to have emerged from research into scientific communication is that there is no universal solution to how science should be communicated. One must first understand the context in order to be able to be clear about one’s objectives and honest to one’s audience.”

As the editor of an international journal, Massimiano Bucchi also sees that there are clear cultural differences that have an impact on scientific communication. One such example is China, which is one of those countries that is a new addition to the field of research.

“There, much of the scientific communication is concerned with providing information about, and spreading the usage of, new techniques, such as within agriculture, for example.”

Pictures as an unexplored possibility

Massimiano Bucchi is currently particularly interested in the use of visual content in scientific communication. Pictures have always been used to communicate science – first in the form of illustrations, then by means of photographs and films. Nowadays, infographics (which can be interactive and quite sophisticated) have become popular.

Massimiano Bucchi has studied people’s recognition of scientific pictures, such as the DNA helix and pictures of well-known scientists.

“Just because someone recognises a picture of Einstein doesn’t mean they know anything about physics. But we should investigate in more detail how we can use images and develop methods for measuring the effects that pictures have on the communication of science.”

He believes that a visual representation can act as a springboard for the conveying of more complex content. The recognition of images with scientific content is also an important part of what is known as ‘scientific literacy’, which is concerned with the popular understanding of science.

“Today, we measure scientific understanding by using text-based questions. This should also incorporate the visual aspect – the recognition of pictures – but this area remains, as yet, unresearched.”

Open science in a real sense

Scientific communication is often concerned with the actual research results or with generating interest in science, such as through science festivals, for example. According to Massimiano Bucchi, although this is an important element of the communication, it is equally important to increase awareness of the research conditions.

“If we really want people to be able to engage in science, we must also discuss how the system works – for example, why does the government choose to invest in one particular research area and not in another?”

Cases of scientific misconduct represent one example of the importance of open discussion. What actually happened and how did this situation arise? In the view of Massimiano Bucchi, participation in the discussion is dependent upon people having the right to know the answers to these questions

“Everybody is talking about open science but it is not open in the way that it should be. The funding of research, publication, how decisions are made and how a policy is formed – the system is really quite inaccessible. Being able to communicate this is quite a challenge but it is necessary if we want society to become engaged in science.”

Text: Natalie von der Lehr
Photo: Thomas Fasting